Rising to a height of 2250m, this volcano regularly spits out clouds of rock and ash in the country’s most dramatic sound-and-light extravaganza. The current period of eruption began in 1965, and colonial records show that it was also active between 1565 and 1775. Today it certainly ranks as one of the most accessible and exciting volcanoes in Central America, and a trip to the cone is an unforgettable experience (although sulphurous fumes and very high winds can make an ascent impossible some days). The best time to watch the eruptions is at night, when the volcano often spouts plumes of brilliant orange lava.
It’s a steep but steady hour’s climb up a good path through milpas and thickish forest until you suddenly emerge on the lip of an exposed ridge from where you can see the cone in all its brutal beauty. In front of you is a massive bowl of cooled lava, its fossilized currents flowing away to the right; opposite is the cone itself, a jet-black triangular peak that occasionally spews rock and ash. It’s possible to descend, and pick your way carefully across the lava fields until you reach a section that’s oozing molten lava. If you’ve brought a marshmallow along, toast yourself a snack.
Many standard tours don’t allow enough time, but it’s a further 45 minutes to the summit of the cone itself. The route passes between charred stumps of trees, and then up the slippery ashen sides of the cone itself, a terrifying but thrilling ascent, eventually bringing you face to face with bubbling patches of molten magma and minor eruptions (if conditions permit). A noxious brew of sulphurous fumes (that choke the throat) swirls around the lip of the crater and you’ll feel the heat of the ash and lava beneath your feet. The climb certainly shouldn’t be attempted when Pacaya is highly active – check with your tour agency about the state of the eruptions before setting out.